Japanese Pine trees are famous worldwide for their use in the art of bonsai, where they have been used for a millennium or more.
However, they are also beautiful full-size trees that make a lovely addition to many landscapes.
There are four true pines of the Pinus genus in the Pinaceae family native to Japan. Three are well-known, the White, Red, and Black Japanese Pines are all widely used commercially for lumber and ornamental trees.
The lesser-known but still beautiful Japanese Stone Pine is a smaller shrub pine of the white pine group.
The Japanese Umbrella Pine is a unique living fossil of the Sciadopityaceae family, the only living species in an ancient conifer lineage more closely related to Cypress than to a true pine.
Let’s look at all of these different types of Japanese pine trees and learn how to identify them.
Japanese Pine Tree Identification (With Photos)
Identifying Japanese Pine Trees by Their Leaf Arrangement
All true pine trees have needle-like leaves arranged in fascicles (bundles) of 2 – 5 (1 – 7). This helps quickly differentiate them from all other coniferous trees with needle-like leaves like fir, spruce, or hemlock that are attached singly to the branches via ‘suction cups’ (attached directly as though suction-cupped onto the branches), pulvini (a swelling at the leaf base), or petioles (leaf stalks).
Even if there is only one leaf per fascicle, it can still be identified as pine because it still has the sheath at the base that attaches the leaf to the branch.
The Japanese Umbrella Pine has unique dimorphic leaves with very small, inconspicuous scale-like leaves held close to the twigs plus connate needle-like leaves that arise from the axils of the scale-like leaves in radially spreading, umbrella-like false whorls located at the branch tips.
The arrangement of their needle-like leaves looks more like a true cedar (Cedros spp) than a pine tree, even though they are not closely related to either. The easiest difference to see between the two is that the Japanese Umbrella Pine’s whorl-like clusters are located at the tips of twigs and branches, while the whorl-like clusters of true cedars are found all along the branches.
Identifying Japanese Pine Trees by Their Leaves
Needle-like leaves are described by their length, width, and color, all of which can vary within the same species.
The number of leaves they have per fascicle is a fantastic tool routinely used to help identify the different types of pine trees.
While the number of leaves per fascicle can vary within species in other pines like Ponderosa Pine which can have 2 – 5 leaves per fascicle, in Japanese Pines, this number does not vary and is a consistently reliable identification tool.
Needle-like leaves are also sometimes described by how they look in cross-section. To view this feature, you need to cut a leaf in half width-wise using a sharp knife or razor blade and then look at the cut end to see what its shape looks like.
They are also often described by their pliability or how well they bend. This is a feature you cannot see; you will have to take a leaf and bend it in your fingers.
Some are very pliable, bending easily, while others are stiff and rigid, not bending easily. Some pines from outside Japan have brittle leaves that will break easily if bent.
Identifying Japanese Pine Trees by Their Stomata
Stomata are small pores in leaf surfaces that allow for gas exchange with the atmosphere, allowing for the critical process of photosynthesis that allows plants to grow and reproduce.
Individual stomata are often invisible to the naked eye. However, in many conifers and in most pines, they are coated with wax that makes them more visible.
They are also typically arranged either loosely or densely into lines that are often visible to the naked eye.
These lines are often packed together to form even thicker and more visible stomatal bands made of two to many lines.
Whether the stomatal lines or bands are found on the lower leaf surface(s), or both/all surfaces also help us to identify the different species of trees.
Identifying Japanese Pine Trees by Their Seed Cones
The shape, size, and color of the female seed cones are useful tools in identifying the different types of Japanese pine trees.
Seed cones vary significantly in size and shape and whether they are stalkless (sessile) or are attached to the tree via a stalk (peduncle).
In Japanese pines, the seed cones can be ovoid (egg-shaped), ellipsoid (widest in the middle and narrowing at both ends), or conical (cone-like with a flat bottom and narrowing to a somewhat pointed tip), or some combination of those shapes.
They are also described by the shape and color of the scales and the scale tips (apophyses) and what their umbos look like.
An umbo is a protuberance on the end of the seed scale. Sometimes, they are differently colored, and some are nearly flat while others are raised and blunt to sharp-pointed.
Identifying Japanese Pine Trees by Their Seed Cones
Male pollen cones on conifer trees tend to be small, with less variability between species. Among pine trees, they are bigger than many other conifers but still much smaller than the seed cones.
Japanese White Pine and Stone Pines tend to have uniquely red pollen cones, fairly unusual among pines, that are ellipsoid or rounded, like the red pollen cones in the Japanese Stone Pine photo below. This can be a good identification tool for those species.
Other Japanese pines have orange or yellowish ellipsoid pollen cones more like those in the above photo.
Identifying Japanese Pine Trees by Tree Form
Tree form or habit is the shape that a tree has when viewed from a distance. In order to see the form, you need to look past the individual branches and leaves and see what shape the outline of the tree has.
Japanese pines tend to be pyramidal (widest on the bottom and narrow on top, like a Christmas tree), conical (like pyramidal but more slender, bullet-shaped), spire-like (having an extra long and narrow top, like a spire), or umbrella-shaped (a spreading crown with the shape of an umbrella).
Japanese Stone Pine is a shrub with a somewhat creeping, prostrate form. Prostrate shrubs spread outwards horizontally fairly close to the ground and have branch tips that ascend).
Identifying Japenese Pine Trees by Branch Growth
The patterns of the branches usually determine the form that a tree has.
Pyramidal and conical trees tend to have mostly ascending branches that are directed upwards toward the top of the tree.
Umbrella-like crowns have more spreading branches that are a combination of ascending, horizontal (coming out of the trunk at a 90-degree angle), and somewhat descending (directed down towards the tree’s base).
Japanese Umbrella Pine has branches that are usually whorled or almost whorled. This is where 3 or more branches arise from the same node along the trunk and spread away from each other.
Identifying Japanese Pine Trees by Their Bark
All bark starts out smooth when the trees are very young, and their smooth bark has different colors in different species.
As their bark ages, pine trees tend to lose their smoothness and develop furrows (aka grooves) that may be vertical, or more often in pines, irregular and vertical and horizontal, which creates scaly plates that sometimes become rough and lift at the edges, exfoliating somewhat.
Sometimes the scaly plates are more regular and squarish or rectangular in shape.
5 Different Types of Japanese Pine Trees & Their Identifying Features
1. Japanese White Pine – Pinus parviflora
Japanese White Pine, like most white pines, has soft, flexible needles with conspicuous white stomatal lines giving them an attractive and delicate silvery-blue-green appearance.
It also has thinner and lighter bark than the other Japanese pines and makes a nice contrast to the other evergreen trees.
It is a medium-sized tree with a slow to medium growth rate.
It grows naturally in rocky soils in mountainous habitats with relatively cool summers and does not perform well in hot and humid climates.
Best grown in full sun in acidic, loamy, well-drained soil.
It is drought-resistant once established.
The wood is weak and prone to breakage. Pruning while the tree is still young during winter dormancy will improve its strength.
It is frequently used in bonsai, popular for its shorter leaves than most white pines, though it is often grafted onto a Japanese Black Pine rootstock for better durability.
Identifying Features of the Japanese White Pine
Japanese White Pine is a medium to tall tree with a conical crown and smooth pale gray bark maturing to dull gray or light purplish-brown and scaly plated.
New twigs are green, aging to yellow-brown, and densely pale yellow pubescent-hairy.
Winter buds are ovoid and not resinous.
Leaves are arranged in five per fascicle and are slightly curved, triangular in cross-section, 1.4 – 2.17” long, thin (less than 1 mm), with conspicuous white stomatal bands on the lower surface.
Pollen cones are red and ellipsoid, located at branch tips.
Seed cones are subsessile, ovoid or ovoid-ellipsoid, 1.6 – 3” long, and 1.4 – 1.8” wide.
Seed scales are relatively large, somewhat diamond-shaped, with pale brown or dull gray-brown apophyses (tips) with a sunken terminal umbo.
Often Confused With: Japanese White Pine is mostly confused with the Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), which has longer needle-like leaves at 2.4 – 4” long, plus much larger cylindrical seed cones up to 7.8” long, and its bark is also thicker and much more deeply furrowed.
Other Common Names: Five-Needle Pine and Ulleungdo White Pine
Native Area: Japan and Korea
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 50 ft (to 85 ft) tall, 30 – 50 ft spread
2. Japanese Red Pine – Pinus densiflora
Japanese Red Pine is native to low rocky mountainous slopes in China, Korea, Japan, and parts of Russia.
In cultivation, it is a slow-growing medium-sized tree with an umbrella-like crown, though, in its native habitat, it can grow quite tall.
Its common name comes from its orangish-red young bark that peels off in thin scaly plates.
Best grown in full sun in moist but well-drained soils, fertilizing lightly each spring. It is intolerant of hot and dry winds.
Its resinous wood is rot-resistant and has been prized for lumber since ancient times, where it was used for beams in temples that still stand today. It is also popular for its high heat when burnt in pottery kilns.
Identifying Features of the Japanese Red Pine
Japanese Red Pine is a medium to tall tree, sometimes multi-trunked, with a somewhat umbrella-like crown and a fairly thick trunk up to 5 ft wide with orange-red, red-brown, or sometimes brownish-yellow flaking and scaly bark maturing to grayish with large scaly plates.
New twigs are pale yellow or red-yellow, slightly glaucous, and hairless.
Winter buds are dark red-brown and slightly resinous.
Leaves are arranged in fascicles of two. Leaves may or may not be twisted, are somewhat rounded in cross-section, 2 – 5.9” long, somewhat thin (1 mm), pliable, and have thin stomatal bands on all of their surfaces.
Seed cones are erect or pendulous, short-stalked, dark yellow-brown or brownish yellow, ovoid or ovoid-conical, 1.2 – 2.2” long, and 1 – 1.6” wide.
Seed scales are thin with broad diamond-shaped, flat or recurved apophyses (tips) with flat or minutely protruding spine-like umbos.
Often Confused With: Japanese Red Pine is often confused with the Red Pine (Pinus resinosa), which has two deep yellow-green leaves per fascicle that are slightly longer, straight or slightly twisted, and are very brittle and break when bent; it also has subsessile seed cones that are very broadly ovoid to nearly round. It is also sometimes confused with Japanese Black Pine, which has slightly shorter needle-like leaves that are dull to glossy green, rigid (not pliable), and it has thicker bark that is dark gray to blackish with black furrows separating its scaly plates.
Other Common Names: Matsu, Japanese Pine, and Korean Pine.
Native Area: Japan, Korean Peninsula, northeastern China, extreme southeast Russia, and Siberia.
USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 60 ft (to 100 ft) tall, 15 – 30 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Dragon-Eye Japanese Red Pine Pinus densiflora ‘Oculus Draconis’ is a centuries-old cultivar with uniquely variegated long needle-like leaves with two bands of yellow and one band of the usual green. The light coloring is not from stomata; the needles themselves are actually yellow. It grows best in warm temperate climates, performing poorly in areas with strong winter winds, and its variegation may fade in northern climates. – Image by David J. Stang, ZipcodeZoo.com, CC BY-SA 4.0
3. Japanese Black Pine – Pinus thunbergii
Japanese Black Pines are the most common pine tree seen in Japan.
It has rich, dark green leaves that are densely crowded together, creating a lush crown.
It gets its common name from its nearly black mature bark.
It is a faster-growing pine than other Japanese pines.
Best grown in full sun in moist, fertile, well-drained soil.
It can tolerate heat, drought, sandy soils, cold winds, and salt spray, making them highly suitable for maritime exposure.
They have been widely planted as street trees and in temple gardens in Shinto shrines throughout Japan for many centuries.
They are grown and harvested commercially for their wood, which is widely used for timber and fuel.
This tree is probably the most commonly used pine worldwide for bonsai techniques since it takes better to pruning than most pines and produces two flushes of growth per year.
Identifying Features of the Japanese Black Pine
Japanese Black Pines are medium to tall trees with thick trunks up to 6.6 ft wide with a broadly conical or umbrella-like crown and dull gray bark that matures to gray-black with thick, rough, scaly plates that are usually black inside the often cross-checked furrows.
New twigs are pale brownish-yellow and hairless.
Winter buds are silvery white with scales fringed at their margins.
Leaves are arranged with two needle-like leaves per fascicle that are dull to shiny green, 2.4 – 4.7” long, thin to thick (0.5 – 2 mm wide), stiff and rigid, with stomatal lines found on all surfaces.
Seed cones are solitary or in clusters of 2 – 3, short-stalked, brown, conical-ovoid or ovoid, 1.6 – 2.4” long, and 1.2 – 1.6” wide.
Seed scales have slightly swollen apophyses (tips) that are conspicuously cross-keeled and have slightly sunken umbos with blunt tips.
Often Confused With: Japanese Black Pine is mostly confused with Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), which typically has three (never two) twisted leaves per fascicle, reddish-brown bark that is flakier and more deeply furrowed, and larger seed cones that are more persistent and have a dark red-brown border on the outer edge of their scales.
Other Common Names: Kuro Matsu, Black Pine, and Japanese Pine.
Native Area: Coastal Japan (Kyūshū, Shikoku, and Honshū) and South Korea.
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 70 ft tall, 25 – 40 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Thunderhead Japanese Black Pine Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead‘ is a compact cultivar growing to only 10 ft tall and up to 15 ft wide, making it suitable for smaller gardens where it makes a great border or privacy screen but works equally as well on a lawn, next to a patio, walkway, or next to the front door. Its lush foliage stays rich and green all year long. – Images via Nature Hills – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize
4. Japanese Stone Pine – Pinus pumila
Japanese Stone Pine, also frequently called the Dwarf Siberian Pine, is another true pine that is native to Japan but much less well-known than the other Pinus species of Japan.
It is a slow-growing, dense, prostrate shrub, seldom growing more than 9 ft tall.
It has attractive, dense silvery-bluish green needle-like leaves and seed cones that are an attractive purplish color when young.
Its compact size would make it highly suitable as an accent plant or border shrub that could be used in small gardens.
Best grown in full sun in moist, well-drained soils.
Its slow growth (4 – 6” per year) means that pruning is generally not required.
Identifying Features of the Japanese Stone Pine
Japanese Stone Pine is a prostrate shrub with creeping branches that typically spread wider than it grows tall.
It has gray-brown, flaking, scaly bark.
New twigs are brown, maturing to dark red-brown, and densely pubescent-hairy.
Winter buds are reddish-brown and slightly resinous.
Leaves are arranged in five needle-like leaves per fascicle that are trapeziform in cross-section, stiff, 1.6 – 2.4” (to 3.3”) long, and thin (1 mm).
Pollen cones are red and rounded.
Seed cones are erect, maturing to pale purple-brown or red-brown, conical-ovoid or ovoid, 1.2 – 1.8” long, 1 – 1.2” wide, and somewhat indehiscent (not breaking apart at maturity).
Seed scales are broadly somewhat diamond-shaped with broadly triangular, thick, swollen apophyses (tips) with purple-black umbos ending in a slightly recurved protuberance.
It sometimes hybridizes with Japanese White Pine producing a small tree with intermediate characteristics between the two species.
Often Confused With: Japanese Stone Pine is often confused with the shrubby Mugo Pine (Pinus mugo), which has two upward-pointing bright medium to dark green leaves per fascicle and seed cones with umbos that do not protrude. It is also confused with Siberian Pine (often called Siberian Cedar) Pinus siberica, which has five leaves per fascicle that are in dense tufts at the branch tips and are typically longer (2.4 – 4.3”), relatively thick (to 1.7 mm), and have stomatal lines on two upper surfaces.
Other Common Names: Siberian Dwarf Pine, Dwarf Stone Pine, or Creeping Pine
Native Area: East Asia in Eastern Siberia, north-east of Mongolia, north-east of China, northern Japan, and Korea
USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 7 (sometimes listed as low as Zone 1, so it could potentially be grown in colder climates with protection from freezing winds)
Average Size at Maturity: 6 – 9 ft (to 19 ft) tall, 8 – 15 ft spread
5. Japanese Umbrella Pine Tree – Sciadopitys verticillata
Japanese Umbrella Pine is a unique tree endemic to mid-elevation cloud forests on the islands of Japan.
It is a very slow-growing tree (6” per year) that is best grown in full sun in rich, slightly acidic, moist, but well-drained soils.
It grows best in areas with mild temperate climates and should be given afternoon shade where summers are hot and a sheltered location in areas with cold winter winds.
It gets its common name from the umbrella-like whorls of needles that grow at the ends of the twigs and branches.
This tree is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN List of Endangered Species.
Identifying Features of the Japanese Umbrella Pine
Japanese Umbrella Pine is a slow-growing medium to tall tree with a thick trunk up to 9.8 ft wide with short, spreading branches that are more or less whorled and come out of the trunk horizontally.
The bark is thick, soft, reddish-brown, and somewhat fibrous.
It has dimorphic leaves with small, inconspicuous triangular scale-like leaves and larger connate needle-like leaves that are 0.3 – 0.5” long and emerge from the axils of the smaller scale-like leaves. They have two white stomatal bands on the lower surface, separated by a groove in the middle.
The larger leaves are arranged in radially spreading umbrella-like whorl-like clusters at branch tips.
They are monoecious trees with pollen cones in clusters at branch tips.
Seed cones are terminal, short-stalked, narrowly ovoid, 3.1 – 4.7” long and 1” wide, with numerous wedge-shaped scales that nearly enclose the bracts.
Often Confused With: The Japanese Umbrella Pine is mostly confused with Deodar Cedar (Cedros deodara), which has dark gray scaly bark, often pendulous twigs, and similar-looking needle-like leaves but they are found in whorl-like clusters all along the branches rather than just at the tips, they have stomatal lines on all of their leave’s surfaces, and they lack the scale-like leaves seen in the Japanese Umbrella Pine.
Other Common Names: Umbrella Pine and Kōyamaki
Native Area: Endemic to Japan’s cloud forests on southern Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku islands
USDA Growing Zones: 6 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 35 – 40 ft (to 131 ft) tall, 10 – 15 ft spread
Available at: Fast-Growing-Trees
Joyful Japanese Pine Trees
Growing Japanese Pine Trees in Your Garden
Japanese pines are adapted to the cool to mild temperate climates of Japan in USDA Zones 5 – 7.
The Japanese Red Pine and Japanese Stone Pine do well down to USDA Zone 3, and the latter may even be grown in colder climates in a sheltered location with some protection from harsh winter winds.
For those in warmer climates, your best choice is the Japanese Black Pine, which is very heat-tolerant and drought-tolerant and will grow in USDA Zone 10.
If you are not sure which zone you are in, check out the USDA Planting Zones to determine your climatic zone.
All Japanese pines are best grown in full sun. None do very well in partial shade, and none will grow in full shade. If you have a very shady location, why not try a hemlock tree, they are one of the few trees that will thrive in full shade.
Japanese pines tend to prefer richer soils than many conifers, and they tend to prefer slightly acidic to neutral soils, most doing poorly in alkaline soils.
For moisture, all prefer moist but well-drained soils, similar to what they find in their natural environment in the moist rocky slopes of the cloud forests they often grow in. None will grow well in water-logged or permanently wet soils, so heavy clay is not recommended.
If you have wet soil and want to grow a pine, the Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) grows naturally in wet soils, often on the margins of swamps.
If you want more information on choosing the right tree for the right spot, check out How to Pick A Tree For Your Yard.
I always try to encourage people to grow native species wherever possible to enhance wildlife and biodiversity values and reduce the risk of invasive species. Fortunately, however, none of the Japanese Pines are on any invasive species lists and should be safe to grow outside their natural habitat.
Interesting Facts About Japanese Pine Trees
The Yamaki Pine, a Japanese White Pine bonsai, is at least 375 years old and has survived several disasters, including being located just two miles from the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima during World War II.
The Japanese Umbrella Pine is not a pine tree at all. It is the only living species in the distantly related Sciadopitaceae family. It is called a living fossil since it diverged from the rest of the conifers well over 200 million years ago and has changed little in that time.
The largest and oldest known Japanese Umbrella Pine is at the Jinguji Temple in Nodagawa, Japan which is 88.6 ft tall with a trunk 13.45 ft wide and has been locally worshipped at the temple since at least 1310.
Most true Japanese pines do not usually live more than 150 years, except for the slow-growing Japanese Stone Pine, which often lives to 300 or even up to 1000 years.
Human Uses of Japanese Pine Trees
Japanese pine trees are widely used for lumber and fuel, making superior wood and heat for fires.
The wood is used in construction but also in furniture making and sometimes for musical instruments.
They are also often used ornamentally as garden specimens, borders, or street trees.
The Red, White, and Black Japanese Pines are also very popular among bonsai enthusiasts.
Japanese Black Pine is a popular herbal remedy used externally for all kinds of skin rashes, wounds, and infections.
Japanese Black Pine is often planted to help control soil erosion, especially along the coasts.
The water-resistant wood of Japanese Umbrella Pine is prized for making boats.
Wildlife Values Japanese Pine Trees Provide
Pine trees provide critical wildlife values anywhere they grow. They add structural diversity to the forests creating habitat niches for birds, small animals, and insects to live.
Their seeds are edible and loved by squirrels, chipmunks, birds, and other wildlife.
Deer and other large animals use the trees for cover and shelter from the elements while they rest.
Japanese pines are pretty, elegant conifers that add beauty and joy to any landscape where they are planted or grow naturally.
Now that you know how to identify these lovely trees, you can go out and find the Japanese pines around you or try growing one in your garden or as a bonsai. Enjoy!
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Lyrae grew up in the forests of BC, Canada, where she got a BSc. in Environmental Sciences.
Her whole life, she has loved studying plants, from the tiniest flowers to the most massive trees.
She is currently researching native plants of North America and spends her time traveling, hiking, documenting, and writing.
When not researching, she is homeschooling her brilliant autistic son, who travels with her and benefits from a unique hands-on education about the environment around him.